How a modern-day Korean war may unfold – if Kim Jong-un follows through on his threats

by margotsiddons27

After decades of empty threats, much of the world tunes out when North Korea vows to unleash destruction on its enemies. But in the past few months, some prominent analysts began warning that Kim Jong-un may actually be serious about preparing for war.

Now in his 13th year running North Korea, Kim is more aggressively testing the boundaries of what his adversaries will tolerate. Backed by rapid progress in his nation’s nuclear capabilities and missile programme, the 40-year-old dictator began 2024 by removing the goal of peaceful unification from North Korea’s constitution and declaring he had the right to “annihilate” South Korea.

While such bellicose rhetoric would normally be dismissed – Kim could just be posturing ahead of South Korean elections on April 10 – two prominent analysts set off a round of discussion among North Korea watchers with an article suggesting that this time Kim isn’t bluffing.

“Like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong-un has made a strategic decision to go to war,” former CIA officer Robert Carlin and nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker wrote in early 2024 on the website 38 North, which focuses on North Korea. They didn’t forecast how soon that could take place.

Carlin and Hecker’s views are not universal: most analysts argue that any full-scale attack would be a move of desperation or suicide, inviting a response from South Korea and the US that would end the Kim family’s nearly eight-decade-long rule. But with multiple conflicts raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, it’s just the kind of war the world could stumble into – with potentially devastating consequences for not just the Korean peninsula, but the global economy and, particularly, the chip supply chain.

Seoul’s response to all the speculation has been blunt: “The Kim regime will meet its end” if it pursues all-out war, South Korea’s Defence Ministry said in January.

Here are the potential scenarios if Kim Jong-un decides to make good on his threats to attack South Korea.

Planes of the US Far East Air Forces rain tonnes of high-demolition bombs on North Korea in January 1951. Many of North Korea’s major cities were obliterated in the original Korean war. Photo: US Air Force via AP

How it begins

Back in 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea, catching the US off guard. The forces of Kim Il-sung – Kim Jong-un’s grandfather – took over much of the peninsula before US and South Korean forces counter-attacked. China’s intervention led to a stalemate that resulted in a ceasefire but no formal peace treaty, and the Korean peninsula has remained split at around the 38th parallel ever since.

Kim Jong-un is unlikely to risk a similar invasion. But he has shown an appetite for smaller provocations that could spin out of control – a trait shared by his father, Kim Jong-il.

One flashpoint is the Yellow Sea border islands that are part of South Korea but located in waters claimed by Pyongyang. In 2010, some two years before Kim Jong-un took power, Yeonpyeong Island was the scene of a deadly artillery bombardment that killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians, while setting houses ablaze.

03:07

Residents on Korean border island live in fear amid heightened North-South tensions

Residents on Korean border island live in fear amid heightened North-South tensions

About six months earlier, South Korea accused North Korea of torpedoing its warship Cheonan near the island, killing 46 sailors – an allegation Pyongyang denied.

South Korea has since pledged that another attack in the Yellow Sea would be met by an even stronger response, raising the chance for miscalculations on both sides that could quickly escalate.

“If North Korea makes a provocation, we will punish it multiple times over,” conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol said in January after North Korea conducted artillery drills near a border island. The South Korean leader has taken a tough line with Kim’s regime and responded to its provocations with military drills, often enlisting the US in shows of force.

Traffic at night in the Gangnam area of Seoul, South Korea’s capital city. North Korea keeps its artillery in hardened positions and ready to fire at South Korea’s largest city on short notice. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Attack on Seoul

Any peripheral attack that escalates would immediately turn the spotlight onto greater Seoul, home to about half of the country’s 51 million people. North Korea has spent decades stockpiling millions of rounds of artillery and thousands of rockets in the terrain north of the demilitarised zone, which sits some 40km (25 miles) away from South Korea’s largest city.

That border region is also home to about 70 per cent of South Korea’s US$1.67 trillion economy, the base for some of the world’s top technology and manufacturing powerhouses, including Samsung Electronics Co., LG Electronics Inc. and Kia Corp. Even a brief conflict would reverberate throughout global supply chains, disrupting the global economy.

In a display typical of his more aggressive stance, Kim watched his forces in March fire off the weapons that could be used in an attack on the South Korean capital. Just a one-minute artillery and rocket barrage against Seoul could result in nearly 15,000 casualties, according to a 2020 analysis by Rand. A one-hour barrage would see that number rise to more than 100,000.

In either case, a larger conflict would be inevitable.

North Korea’s Western Region Artillery Unit undergoes an ultra-large rocket salvo firing drill last month in this picture released by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. Photo: KCNA via KNS / AFP

Full-blown conflict

If Kim goes all-in on a war, he would likely kick it off with an artillery barrage at key military, political and economic targets in Seoul. North Korea keeps its howitzers, mortars and rocket artillery in hardened positions and ready to fire on short notice for exactly this purpose.

At the same time, an estimated 200,000 soldiers in Kim’s special operations units – part of a 1.1 million-strong active-duty army – would try to cross the border by land, sea, air and even tunnel, according to South Korea’s Defence Ministry. One goal would be to target bridges on the Han River that flows through the centre of Seoul, cutting the city in half and making it difficult for millions of people to flee to the less-populated southern end of the peninsula.

Kim would also seek to impose huge economic costs as quickly as possible. The Rand war-game analysis determined that a five-minute North Korean artillery strike on one LG-run factory in Paju, north of Seoul, would put an US$8.9 billion investment at risk and cause thousands of casualties.

Flags of North Korea (rear) and South Korea (front) flutter in the wind as seen from the border area between the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea. Photo: Yonhap via AP

But North Korea’s advantages in striking first wouldn’t last long.

South Korea is also ready to fight: it has Patriot defence systems to intercept incoming missiles, 555,000 active-duty troops and a military budget that’s larger than North Korea’s entire sanctions-ravaged economy. And there’s also 28,500 US troops based in South Korea, along with American spy satellites constantly monitoring the Korean peninsula.

Although North Korea has a manpower advantage, the bulk of its forces rely on “increasingly obsolete equipment” dating back to the days of the Soviet Union, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in its 2023 review of the world’s militaries.

The United States and South Korea would essentially, instantly, from the very first moments of the war, have absolute air superiority in every way that could be imagined

Michael Mazarr, political scientist at Rand

North Korea’s few Soviet-era fighters and its squadrons of single-propeller An-2 biplanes – developed in the 1950s and with a top speed of about 160 miles per hour (260km/h) – would be easy pickings for South Korea’s surface-to-air missiles and modern F-35A jets, which can travel at speeds exceeding 1,200mph.

“The United States and South Korea would essentially, instantly, from the very first moments of the war, have absolute air superiority in every way that could be imagined,” said Michael Mazarr, a senior political scientist at Rand.

It’s the same when it comes to other weapons systems: Pyongyang’s submarines are mostly small underwater clunkers that can’t stray far from the coast because they are easily detected. Its tanks are Soviet-era, and easily destroyed by Javelin missile systems used in Ukraine to stop Russia.

Kim Jong-un (second left) inspects what North Korean state media said was a new nuclear attack submarine called “Hero Kim Kun Ok” in September last year. Photo: KCNA/Korea News Service via AP

What South Korea doesn’t strike in the first few waves would likely be subject to air and missile attacks in the days that follow, leaving North Korea’s cities vulnerable to destruction – as happened in the original Korean war.

“Inadequate availability of fuel and transport assets, poor maintenance of ground lines of communication, and insufficient training all constrain North Korea’s ability to sustain large-scale conventional offensive operations,” the US Defence Intelligence Agency said in a recent report.

‘Bloody nose’ strike

Another possibility is a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea by the US and South Korea, an option discussed during the Trump administration. This scenario would only be on the table if the allies believed a large-scale North Korean attack was imminent, with the intent to show force and remind Kim that his antiquated military is no match for America’s might.

But the move was always seen as risky, likely leading directly to a bigger conflict. Moreover, in recent years, many of North Korea’s liquid-fuel rockets – which take time to fire off – have been replaced by solid-fuel versions that Kim can quickly shoot from train carriages, lake beds and launchers hidden in caves with little to no warning.

If Kim misjudged and thought the US and South Korea were looking to end his regime – instead of just deliver a message of deterrence – he might preemptively use a nuclear weapon, said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul at the Centre for a New American Security.

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North Korea launches mock nuclear warhead missiles to ‘warn enemies’

North Korea launches mock nuclear warhead missiles to ‘warn enemies’

A US National Intelligence Estimate that was declassified last year said Kim would probably only use his atomic arsenal if he believes he and his regime are in peril.

“Our analysis right now is, effectively, that he will engage in increasingly provocative behaviour but not – is not interested – in escalating this into a full-on war and that there is a kind of a limit on this,” US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress in March.

If a broader North Korean attack looked likely, South Korea would aim to deploy new bunker-buster missiles and squadrons of fighter jets based south of Seoul. US bombers in Guam and ships and fighters based in Japan could also come to South Korea’s aid.

The South Korea-US alliance would use air superiority to target command centres, weapons storage sites, rocket launchers, radars, military bunkers, missile silos and nuclear storage facilities in hopes of wiping out as many of North Korea’s assets as possible.

Kim (centre) pictured with North Korean soldiers on Tuesday during the test-firing of missile “Hwasongpho-16B” on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA via KNS / AFP

Targeting Kim

Also on the target list: North Korea’s leaders, including Kim. Yoon has not been shy discussing his country’s so-called Three Axis plan that includes pre-emptive strikes, full-scale assaults and taking out Kim. Pyongyang’ propaganda apparatus has denounced South Korea for organising ‘decapitation units” and pledged to destroy “the puppet warmongers” with a nuclear attack if they tried.

The question of nuclear weapons is the most harrowing. Various estimates indicate North Korea may have 40 to 90 warheads. The Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defence Analyses said Kim seeks to have between 100 to 300 over the long term.

A strike on the Seoul region with one of North Korea’s more powerful bombs could cause about 400,000 fatalities and 1.5 million casualties, Rand estimated. North Korea could also strike out against US ally Japan, or target American facilities in Guam or even in North America, although opinion is divided on whether Kim’s regime has the ICBM technology to hit targets on the US mainland.

Kim (left) and his daughter watch the test launch of a “Hwasongpho-18” intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in December last year. Photo: KCNA via KNS / AFP

“North Korea has yet to demonstrate its capability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States, with questions lingering about its proficiency in re-entry vehicle technology,” said Lami Kim, a non-proliferation expert at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu.

North Korea has also sought to deploy lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons for the battlefield, perhaps to slow down a US-led counter-attack. But use of nuclear weapons would expose Kim to a far more powerful response, with the US being able to hit back quickly, and overwhelmingly.

In that case, the death toll for an all-out strike could reach into the millions. A full-blown war could knock the global economy off the rails, leading to trillions in dollars of damage. And Kim’s regime would almost certainly be finished.

“We assess that through 2030, Kim Jong-un most likely will continue to pursue a strategy of coercion, potentially including non-nuclear lethal attacks, aimed at advancing the North’s goals of intimidating its neighbours, extracting concessions, and bolstering the regime’s military credentials domestically,” said the latest US National Intelligence Estimate report.

02:12

Kim Jong-un vows to accelerate war preparations, while the South holds rare defence drills

Kim Jong-un vows to accelerate war preparations, while the South holds rare defence drills

Is conflict inevitable?

The biggest questions now are whether the die has already been cast and what could prevent it.

Most analysts say Kim’s more heated rhetoric is just amped-up sabre-rattling, meant to influence South Korea’s elections, unsettle the West or win more concessions. Kim has staged provocations ahead of every election held in South Korea during his time in power, and he has more of an incentive to deal Yoon’s conservative party a blow in the April 10 vote for parliament.

“The fundamental goal of the regime is regime preservation,” said Rand’s Mazarr.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Kim Jong-un before their meeting in Pyongyang on June 21, 2019. Photo: KCNA/dpa

Another variable to consider is China – historically Pyongyang’s closest partner, which came to the aid of Kim’s grandfather during the first Korean war.

Beijing has every reason to prevent a conflict from starting or getting out of hand. A nuclear exchange on the peninsula, or a conventional war that results in North Korea’s defeat, would go against China’s long-term interests, potentially leaving American and South Korean troops near the Chinese border and the global economy in tatters.

But China’s influence over North Korea has long been limited, despite being the country’s most important trade partner. Even when Beijing was cooperating with the US on the UN Security Council to condemn North Korean nuclear developments during the Trump years, the measures failed to change Pyongyang’s behaviour. Kim is also working to diversify his economy away from China, selling some of his artillery stockpiles to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

That economic windfall – which could be in the low billions of dollars – may be one factor that helps keep Kim in line, along with his own desire for self-preservation. The fact that he’s selling millions of artillery shells to Russia may be another signal that Kim doesn’t actually want a war, given he would risk running short of arms to defend himself.

Then-US President Donald Trump goes to shake hands with Kim Jong-un inside the demilitarised zone separating South and North Korea on June 30, 2019. Photo: Dong-A Ilbo/Getty Images/TNS

Moreover, there is now a chance that Donald Trump, who met Kim three times and generally sought better relations with North Korea, will again win the US presidency. Either way, Kim has already shown he has a long-term plan for his family to continue to rule the nation his grandfather founded in 1948, signalling that his daughter could take the reins of power decades from now.

Kim would’ve already invaded South Korea if he was actually preparing for war, according to Daniel Pinkston, an international-relations lecturer at Troy University in Seoul and a former Korean linguist with the US Air Force. A simpler explanation, he said, is that North Korea is deterred from doing so.

“The North Korea leadership is waiting for a restructuring of the world order and the collapse of the US-led alliance system in East Asia,” Pinkston said. “Unless that happens, I don’t see a theory of victory for North Korea.”

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